Ten-year-old Sheila Purce was not happy when her mother told her that she would be going to summer school, but some of the class reading turned out to be intriguing and that was enough to win her over.
"I just read a story about a boy and a dog and his grandma getting sick," she said. "The dog died."
Her 8-year-old sister, Shalia, is also attending summer school at Alexandria's Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology. The girls' mother said the classes will keep their growing brains well exercised, so that getting back into the rhythm of learning will not be so difficult in the fall.
"I sent them to summer school so they wouldn't be lacking anything when they go back to school," Kim Purce said.
There was a time when summer school was rare for anyone except high schoolers who had flunked a course. But in the late 1990s, when Virginia and many other states put new emphasis on standardized achievement tests, summer school classrooms were suddenly filled with children of all ages who had been told they might have to repeat a grade if their test scores didn't improve. Educators in Arlington and Alexandria say the academic emphasis continues, but summer school is no longer simply a last chance to pass a test for promotion. Some summer school students will need to repeat a grade anyway. What is important, teachers say, is giving as many students as possible a chance to keep learning during the summer break so they will not have forgotten so much by the time they return to school in the fall.
The goals "are to maintain, review and reinforce basic reading and mathematics skills," said Felicia Russo, principal at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, which has 110 students enrolled in summer school. Sue Ditmore, who at Cora Kelly teaches a class of students who just finished fourth grade, favors eliminating the long summer break for everyone. "It is awful how much time we have to spend reteaching" what is forgotten over the summer, she said.
"We do this so the children don't go backwards," said Archer Neal, who is teaching a class of rising second-graders at Long Branch.
There are also special summer programs. For example, Ellen Terry Casper's 6-year-old son, Ted, who spent two years in a Kazakhstan orphanage before she adopted him, attends a special education class at Cora Kelly for his learning disabilities. "He loves school," she said.
Alexandria will also have a two-week kindergarten preparation program in August.
Summer enrollment is growing in Alexandria -- as it is in most Northern Virginia school districts -- with a 9 percent increase in four years. Arlington summer school enrollment, however, has dropped 13 percent since 2002, and officials are not sure why. One theory is that the shortage of affordable housing has led some families, who would have sent their children to summer school, to leave the county. Another theory is that students have put in so much extra time during the regular school year preparing for the Standards of Learning exams that they may no longer need so much summer preparation.
In addition to helping students retain information or improve weak skills, the relatively small classes in summer school allow teachers to spend more time with each student.
During a recent class, Ditmore moved around Room 44, the same classroom in which she teaches fifth-graders during the regular school year, as her 17 students sat at their desks writing.
"We are writing, and we are thinking," Ditmore said to the students. "We are not talking. Get those thoughts down. . . . Everyone should have vacation thoughts -- a trip with friends, different things."
Earlier that morning, the students had read a story about river caves. The story was in the form of a play, and the students acted it out. Ditmore told the students that they could produce images as vivid as those in the story if they spent some time remembering the details of their own vacation experiences. She asked them to imagine four photographs from a family outing and write down what they saw.
"If you were in that cave," Ditmore said, recalling the story they had read, "and the water is rising in the cave, you may remember clearly that you were afraid that you would not get out, or that it was very cold."
Those were the kind of details she wanted, she said, but she would not let them start writing their stories until they had put down enough items to enrich the final product.
This was, Ditmore explained later, also a way to help students remember the meaning of words and not just how they are pronounced. During the reading, she said, one student had read the word "headlamp" but had no idea what it was. Then he saw the picture of a cave explorer with the device on his head, and got the connection.
Another morning, Neal was in Room 121 at Long Branch, the same classroom in which she teaches first-graders during the regular year. She watched her students draw pictures of animals with teeth -- the theme of the week. The students had read an article about the kinds of teeth different animals have.
Students who chose to draw herbivores pasted round pieces of noodles on their animal pictures to represent teeth; carnivore drawers got thin, sharp noodle pieces to do the same. Marisa DellaBella, an intern studying for a master's in education at George Washington University, helped students with the glue while Neal encouraged their efforts.
"You are going to want to get a brown crayon. You're doing great," she told one child. To another she said, "I think the whole bear looks great. You're doing good."
"A pink bear?" she said to a third child, examining the drawing.
"Pink ears," the child insisted.
"Okay," Neal said.
Dawn Feltman, the principal of the Cora Kelly summer school, which has 240 students, said attendance has been good. Since most of the students are those who need the extra time, the teachers can focus on their common weaknesses.
"Then you can really meet their needs," she said.